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The Practice: A Long, Strange Trip

By Annie Gausn | Sep. 2, 2006
News

Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2006

The Practice: A Long, Strange Trip

In a familiar career trajectory , a Loyola Law School graduate begins his professional life at a large firm and then finds happiness as a Los Angeles sole practicioner. By Jonathan L. Kirsch

By Jonathan L. Kirsch
     
      Thirty years have passed since I stood with a couple of thousand other new admittees to the State Bar in the cavernous auditorium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center in Los Angeles. The oath was administered by Rose Elizabeth Bird, then still serving as chief justice on the California Supreme Court. When I received my first bar card, I discovered that I was lawyer No. 71,502-a bar number so low that it has come to mark me as something of an altecocker.
     
      The Pavilion, of course, has been wholly eclipsed by Frank Gehry's iconic Disney Hall across the street. Rose Bird was voted off the court and died in obscurity, a relic of Jerry Brown's eccentric gubernatorial administration. Newly minted lawyers in California now are awarded bar numbers in the 240,000 range. And those of us from the Class of '76 who are still alive and practicing law in Los Angeles find ourselves in a strange new world of e-discovery, digital court filings, and disintegrating law firms.
     
      Looking back on my beginnings as an attorney, I find myself on an odd and idiosyncratic perch. I entered the practice of law from a previous career in journalism and publishing, and-after a decade or so as a litigator-I have managed to reinvent myself as an intellectual property attorney by sheer audacity and hard work. I still write books and book reviews, so I find myself confronted with the necessity of practicing what I preach to the authors and publishers who are my clients. It's been a long, strange trip, but perhaps it says something about the legal profession that we find our pleasures and rewards where we can.
     
      I started out as an associate in one of those hard-charging megafirms that were touted in the booming '80s as the wave of the future. I put aside a sheet of letterhead when my name first appeared there. When the first of my fellow associates departed-he wanted to be a movie producer, and got what he wanted-I scratched out his name. By the time I defected to an entertainment boutique in Beverly Hills in 1984, all but two of the lawyers who had joined the firm in the same year I did were already gone. The big firms, we all learned from hard and bitter experience, were like the armed forces: It was up or out, and the partnership pyramid was exceedingly small at the top.
     
      The size and style of the boutique I joined was a sign of the times. The founding partners and most of the associates all started out at an old-line Beverly Hills entertainment firm that shattered under the weight of office politics and the fast-changing dynamics of the entertainment industry. A blue-blooded behemoth like O'Melveny & Myers might get along with just two names, but my boutique found it necessary to feature five names, all but one of which ended with the suffix -man. Spoken aloud, the firm name sounded like a Jewish joke. But the name was a sure measure of the entrepreneurial drive that was characteristic of the best and brightest attorneys in town.
     
      The notion that the legal profession would be dominated by "full-service" law firms consisting of hundreds-if not thousands-of lawyers is a bubble that popped long ago. When I left the entertainment boutique to set up my own practice in 1988, I bought a desk from the rummage sale at the abandoned offices of Finley Kumble Wagner Underberg Manley Myerson and Casey, the shark tank that turned out to be filled with dinosaurs. The legal landscape is now littered with the smoking ruins of big firms, and veterans of the megafirm where I used to work are now happily practicing law as sole practitioners or members of small partnerships all over town. Like thousands of other lawyers, I learned that one way to "make partner" was to rent an office and order a supply of engraved stationery from Stuart F. Cooper.
     
      All of us who hung out a shingle were empowered by the technological revolution that overtook and transformed the legal profession. As a refugee from journalism-where we used to pride ourselves on our prowess with a manual typewriter-I was strictly instructed by my first boss that lawyers did not type. That was a secretary's job. When I smuggled my Olivetti portable typewriter into my little office, I was betrayed by the sound of its keystrokes. The managing partner opened my door, peered inside, shook his head, and elaborately pantomimed the proper use of a Dictaphone. Nowadays, every attorney needs to master the keyboard, and the humblest sole practitioner working out of a back bedroom can produce pleadings, memos, and correspondence as polished as the work product of any law firm on Beacon Hill.
     
      Entrepreneurial attorneys, as I can attest, are a hardy and happy lot. No need to bow and scrape in the presence of the managing partner, no need to make a display of false enthusiasm at the firm picnic. When I run into my colleagues in the corridor of the Century City office building where I work (one is an immigration attorney, another is a criminal defense attorney, a third is a civil litigator, and all are veterans of big firms now turned sole practitioners), we might bitch and moan about overdue accounts and rent and malpractice insurance, but all of us like our bosses more than we used to.
     
      That kind of rugged individualism, of course, is what inspired many of us to practice law in the first place. Lots of lawyers ended up in big, crowded offices, whether by choice or circumstance. They are employed in government service or public-interest law practices, big corporations or big corporate law firms, some perhaps more happily than others. But I have discovered that my kindred spirits in the legal profession are men and women who have struggled to find a way to be true to themselves while earning a living at the practice of law.
     
      Indeed, a certain esprit de corps exists among those of us who have opted out of the big firms. I recall one brash young attorney at the megafirm where I started out who proudly boasted that he liked to "crack the whip" on older attorneys by flatly refusing to grant extensions to conduct discovery. No such animus will be found among the attorneys in my Rolodex-attorneys located all over the world-who are perfectly willing to share their expertise and experience even if we might be competing with each other for business or contending with each other across a conference table on some other day. That's the greatest paradox of all in a profession that is famous for its ruthlessness.
     
      Not long ago I was invited by my alma mater, Loyola Law School, to address a gathering of alumni about the recent Supreme Court decisions on public displays of the Ten Commandments. We gathered at a Beverly Hills steak restaurant, which struck me as an odd culinary choice for cholesterol-conscious baby boomers on Lipitor. Nonetheless, most of us chowed down on red meat, and I marveled at the odd couple across the table. The oldest lawyer in the room, an Irish-American man from the Class of '49 (the year I was born), was seated by happenstance next to the youngest one, an Iranian-American woman from the Class of '06. They were sharing a porterhouse. At the end of the meal, he handed her a business card. "Let me know if you're looking for work," he said, "and be sure to invite me to your wedding."
     
      From generation to generation, I thought to myself, the beat goes on.
     
      Jonathan L. Kirsch (jk@jonathankirsch.com), a longtime contributor to California Lawyer, practices copyright, trademark, and publishing law in Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the author of eleven books, most recently A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
     
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Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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